5 Questions with Stacey Lee, author of Under A Painted Sky
This year’s Centre County Reads book selection, Under A Painted Sky, takes place in 1845. The young adult fiction novel features Sammy, a Chinese American girl, and Annamae, an African American slave girl. The two disguise themselves as boys and set off alone on the Oregon Trail in search of family and freedom.
Author Stacey Lee is an advocate of bringing more diverse voices into children’s books. Under A Painted Sky was her debut book that came out in 2015. In April, she’ll be visiting Happy Valley and speaking at the Nittany Lion Inn. She took time to talk about her book, writing young adult fiction, and bringing diverse characters and voices to the pages of books.
T&G: Centre County Reads obviously picked Under A Painted Sky for its one book this year. It’s been a few years since it came out. Were you/have you been surprised by the reaction to it and how it’s connected with people?
Lee: I’m thrilled at the response! There have definitely been a number of times where I've been surprised to learn where my book has ended up. For example, at one point, several California state judges were passing it around the bench.
T&G: In reading your bio on your Web site, I was interested in how you described writing young adult fiction. You wrote, “Examining childhood through the blurred lens of adult eyes is an exquisitely painful and beautiful process.” I guess what makes it painful? And what makes it beautiful?
Lee: Painful because when you’re an adolescent, that feeling of being rejected/left out/disappointed feels so much more acute than when we’re adults. Not only do we not have the experience to deal with our heartache, but our brains haven’t developed the logic to sort through the problems, so our responses are often guided solely by emotion.
It’s beautiful because looking back can not only help us see how far we’ve come, but also shows us how connected we are with one another. We can all relate to having our heart broken. It reminds us we are all human.
T&G: I also like the part about “writing young adult fiction is like pressing your nose against the glass door to your childhood.” What was your childhood like?
Lee: I’m the middle child of two sisters. My parents were pretty strict when compared to my white friends — for example, we weren’t allowed to pierce our ears or date — and not very strict when it came to the parents of other Asian friends — we didn’t have to go to the dreaded “Chinese” school on Saturdays. I guess that means my parents were pretty okay. They brought us up with the twin virtues of music and education. I feel blessed that my parents are still around and we’re all still very close.
T&G: Your first two books were written in historical periods. What periods of history do you find interesting and how much research do you do about those periods that you’re going to write about?
Lee: I think it's all interesting! My job as a writer of historical fiction is to make whatever period I’m writing about interesting to readers by giving them a personal connection to the period, via a character. You may not care about the Oregon Trail, but if I introduce you to a girl who's on the run from the law and trying to survive on the Oregon Trail, you suddenly care about the next outpost and whether she’s going to be able to find a horse.
I do about 6 to 12 months of research before I start writing, more or less depending on how foreign the topic is for me. I’m currently researching Atlanta, Georgia, and that one’s taken me a bit more time since I’ve never lived in the south.
T&G: Can you talk about your work with We Need Diverse Books and your hopes and goals with that organization?
Lee: The organization grew out of a frustration with how few children’s books are published reflecting the diverse backgrounds of our children. Since when the Children’s Cooperative Book Council began tracking this information, the percentage of books of children’s books written by or containing children of color has hovered at around 7 percent, this despite our population being almost 40 percent diverse. It’s important because when you see yourself in a book, suddenly you matter. Imagine all those kids who, like myself, grew up thinking they weren’t important enough to be in books.
WNDB hopes to continue advocating for better representation of our kids in the book industry, through partnerships with publishers, fund-raising for awards, grants, and publishing internships, book-talking kits for librarians and booksellers, and a host of other programs.
Stacey Lee will give a talk at 7 p.m. April 6 at the Nittany Lion Inn. For more information about Centre County Reads, visit centrecountyreads.org.